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#ThisIs20 – 20 Books Everyone Should Read In Their Twenties

2020 marks 20 years of the Irish Tatler Women of the Year Awards. To reflect the occasion, we have devised a whole season of birthday touchpoints, each designed to consider what 20 years of female Irish achievement means, and what the next 20 years could hold.

Here, we deduct the 20 works of literature that everyone should read at some stage in their lives – but most especially, in their 20s. 

Great literature grows out of periods of change, and there are few transitions more, well, transitional than the end of your twenties and the onset of the whole rest of your life. 

Here is Irish Tatler's list of 20 books everyone should read during their third decade. 

1. "1984," by George Orwell

Paranoia, propaganda and a state of perpetual war form the backdrop to Orwell’s dystopian vision of a totalitarian future. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the population is constantly monitored and manipulated in what Italian essayist Umberto Eco called ‘not negative utopia, but history.’ 

Written in 1948, the book’s ongoing relevance is demonstrated by the extent to which its concepts and terminology - Big Brother, Newspeak, DoubleThink - have seeped into our language. It teaches the importance of critical thinking and how everyone should rail against the machine. And, perhaps most presciently in our age of social media, how technology can be used for control.

2. “White Teeth,” by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith’s debut novel can serve as an inspiration to anyone in their 20s, given that Smith was just 24-years-old when White Teeth was published to worldwide acclaim. Set in turn-of-the-millennium multicultural London and teeming with characters, slang, jokes and insights, this piece bases itself around the meeting of two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, hapless veterans of World War II.

"Believe the hype," as The Times' critic told fans. 

3. "Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man, And Life's Greatest Lesson," by Mitch Albom

Tuesdays with Morrie is a memoir by American author Mitch Albom about a series of visits he made to his former sociology professor Morrie Schwartz, as Schwartz gradually dies of ALS. Their meetings took place every Tuesday for months to discuss life's biggest lessons.

With a theme of personal transcendence, TWM examines the interactions and phenomena between the human experience of living and dying.

4. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” by Joan Didion

Didion’s essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem are firmly rooted in the culture of the 1960s — Haight-Ashbury, Joan Baez, political zealotry of various stripes — but their brilliance is in the way they still speak to the character (and characters) of this country today. 

As Joyce Carol Oates remarked: "[Didion] has been an articulate witness to the most stubborn and intractable truths of our time, a memorable voice, partly eulogistic, partly despairing; always in control."

5. "Americanah," by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 

Ifemelu leaves her native Nigeria to study in the US; through her relationship with a white man, her Princeton fellowship and her work writing a blog about race in America through the eyes of an outsider, she never stops thinking about her high school boyfriend. But when they reunite in Lagos 15 years later, everything has changed.

In a 2013 review, TIME wrote, "to the extent that this is a novel of ideas—and it teems with enough thoughts on race, class and gender to stock a yearlong graduate seminar—Adichie is smart about placing them in the context of resonant contemporary history."

6. "On the Road," Jack Kerouac 

Kerouac's road trip narrative is a coming of age classic that features on 'must read' lists in almost every country. Many ideas in the novel (freedom, dissatisfaction, and longing) are most prevalent in your 20s as you come to terms with the reality of true adulthood. However, beware of the apple pie cravings that come with it.

7. "The Alchemist," by Paula Coelho 

The Alchemist, resplendent in powerful simplicity and soul-stirring wisdom, is about an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago who travels from his homeland in Spain to the Egyptian desert in search of a treasure buried near the Pyramids.

Lush, evocative, and deeply humane, the story of Santiago is an eternal testament to the transforming power of our dreams and the importance of listening to our hearts.

8. "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man," by James Weldon Johnson

Originally published in 1912, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man was one of the first to present a frank picture of being black in America. Masked in the tradition of the literary confession, this “autobiography” purports to be a candid account of its narrator’s private views and feelings as well as an acknowledgement of the central secret of his life: that though he lives as a white man, he is, by heritage and experience, an African-American.

Written by the first black executive secretary of the NAACP, this piece anticipates the social realism of the Harlem Renaissance writers. 

9. "The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories," by Marina Keegan

Marina Keegan graduated magna cum laude from Yale in June 2012. She had a job waiting for her at The New Yorker and had written a play that was to be produced at the New York Fringe Festival. Then, tragically, Keegan was killed in a car accident just five days after graduation.

The Opposite of Loneliness is a collection of deeply rich essays and stories that Keegan left behind. A voice for her generation, she brilliantly captures the universal struggles that all of us face as we try to figure out who we want to be as we face hope, uncertainty, and endless possibility.

10. "A Single Man," by Christopher Isherwood

Christopher Isherwood captures a day in the life of a middle-aged gay man adjusting to solitude following the sudden death of his partner. Through episodes of grief, rage, and loneliness, George is determined to carry on with his everyday life—because, despite the injustices he faces each day, he still loves being alive.

A short poignant novel, it muses upon life, death, the appreciation of simple pleasures of life and survival post-bereavement. 

11. "Fear of Flying," by Erica Jong 

This was the controversial book that, more than any other of its time, changed the way the western world thought, and talked, about sex.

It follows a young female erotic poet called Isadora Wing who, bored with her second marriage, ditches her husband at a psychoanalysts' conference in Vienna to travel through Europe in search of herself and great sex. The only thing holding her back: a crippling fear of flying.

A big part of the push towards second-wave feminism in the 1970s, Jong's witty and quiveringly explicit account of Isadora's escapades, according to the New York Times, 'electrified and titillated the critical establishment.' Henry Miller said it would 'make literary history' for its 'wisdom about the eternal man-woman problem.' A soaring exploration of sex and self.

12. "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," by James Joyce

And now for something a little closer to home... Joyce’s first novel – published when he was in his early thirties – begins in the early childhood of its protagonist Stephen Dedalus and follows him as he grows into a young man. Not only is the prose-style unique and gorgeous, but Dedalus’ journey through young adulthood remains as relevant now as when it was written.

But what makes Joyce’s novel so magical, according to Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård, is that 'his conquest of what belongs to the individual alone … is also a conquest of what belongs, and is unique, to each of us.' It's powerful stuff; vivid, beautiful and swelling with mood.

13. "Never Let Me Go," by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go takes place in a dystopian version of late 1990s England, where the lives of ordinary citizens are prolonged through a state-sanctioned program of human cloning. The clones – referred to as students – grow up in special institutions away from the outside world. 

Now, years later, protagonist Kathy is a young woman who meets with her fellow students once again to make sense of their shared past. 

Suspenseful, moving, beautifully atmospheric, Never Let Me Go is a modern classic.

14. "You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine," by Alexandra Kleeman

Alexandra Kleeman’s brilliant and disturbing debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine pieces together the narcissistic obsessions of consumer culture

Narrator A has a roommate called B and a boyfriend called C.A leads an empty, almost ghostly life, wondering why C always plays porn videos while they have sex. The only antidote for that wasteland is television — the constant, reliable company of that “device casting light and movement,” that box filled with strangers whose lives A, B and C pursue every day from the sofa.

15. "Man's Search For Meaning," by Victor E. Frankl


A prominent Viennese psychiatrist before the war, Viktor Frankl was uniquely able to observe the way that he and other inmates coped with the experience of being in Auschwitz. He noticed that it was the men who comforted others and who gave away their last piece of bread who survived the longest – and who offered proof that everything can be taken away from us except the ability to choose our attitude in any given set of circumstances.

Is man's deepest desire to search for meaning and purpose? This outstanding work offers us all a way to transcend suffering and find significance in the art of living.

16. "Educated," by Tara Westover

Tara Westover was 17 the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her “head-for-the-hills bag”. In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged in her father’s junkyard. 

Educated is an account of the struggle for self-invention. A tale of fierce family loyalty and of the grief that comes with severing close ties, Westover's piece showcases an acute insight that distinguishes all great writers: a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes and the will to change it.

17. "When Breath Becomes Air," by Paul Kalanithi

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.

18. "Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine," by Gail Honeymoon

Having learned to survive, but not live, Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life by way of wearing the same clothes every day, eating the same meal deal for lunch and buying the same two bottle of vodka to drink every weekend. 

Following an act of simple kindness, her world shatters and reforms differently. Now, she must learn to navigate it. 

19. "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking," by Susan Cain 

In Quiet, Susan Cain argues that we dramatically undervalue introverts and shows how much we lose in doing so. She charts the rise of the Extrovert Ideal throughout the twentieth century and explores how deeply it has come to permeate our culture.

She also introduces us to successful introverts--from a witty, high-octane public speaker who recharges in solitude after his talks, to a record-breaking salesman who quietly taps into the power of questions. Passionately argued, superbly researched, and filled with indelible stories of real people, Quiet has the power to permanently change how we see introverts and, equally important, how they see themselves.

20. "Letters to a Young Contrarian," by Christopher Hitchens

In Letters to a Young Contrarian, bestselling author and world-class provocateur Christopher Hitchens inspires the radicals, gadflies, mavericks, rebels, and angry young (wo)men of tomorrow by way of exploring the entire range of "contrary positions".

From noble dissident to gratuitous nag, Hitchens introduces the next generation to the minds and the misfits who influenced him, invoking such mentors as Emile Zola, Rosa Parks, and George Orwell. Consider this the classic guide to the art of principled dissent and disagreement.

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